China Calling

In the midst of spy-plane tensions, a radio show out of Washington provides a platform for feedback from the other side of the globe.

April 07, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - William Zhang sits in a downtown office building, hits a button on a control panel and lets the voice of China fill his dimly lit broadcast booth. It is 8:16 a.m. On the line is a 27-year-old banker from the Hunan province demanding that the United States apologize for the midair collision of a Chinese fighter jet and an American spy plane.

"Yesterday, I heard a caller say he thought the American crewmen should be beheaded," the Chinese-speaking caller says, refusing to give his name. "I don't think he's being logical. But as a Chinese person, he's very angry, and we should understand how he feels. I have a lot of respect for the United States' democracy, but I think the American people are arrogant."

The tensions between China and the United States were playing out live on the air this week in Studio One at Radio Free Asia, a congressionally funded news service broadcasting from M Street into the far reaches of China. In the midst of the standoff over the U.S. spy plane, the American-run call-in shows, which have long given Chinese citizens a sounding board to criticize their government, now find themselves offering a platform for Chinese nationalism.

As Beijing detained 24 American crew members this week - accusing the United States of violating Chinese airspace and demanding an apology for the incident in which a Chinese pilot apparently died - Radio Free Asia programs now serve a purpose some of its creators may have never intended:

The free-flowing vilification of the U.S. government.

"President Bush tried to talk tough, but the Chinese people cannot be intimidated," a "Mr. Chang" boasts during a toll-free call from the Henan province. "What is a U.S. plane doing right in front of China's front door? It bears no good intention. The bullying attitude of the U.S. cannot intimidate our president."

It is not that every caller to Radio Free Asia this week has lambasted the U.S. stance. Some have voiced support for the U.S. position in the standoff. One called for the United States to begin "World War III in the Pacific," to oust Chinese Communists from power. Still, there were moments when rhetoric against the United States from the other side of the globe grew unusually raw.

On Zhang's program, callers are typically so critical of their own government that some dial from pay phones to protect their identities. But suddenly, they were voicing the kind of anti-American sentiment that even a Chinese propaganda czar could admire. Yesterday, as U.S. expressions of regret appeared to ease some of the tensions with Beijing, a caller to Zhang's "Listener Hotline" argued that the Chinese military should have shot down the American plane.

Indeed, during a one-hour period at the height of the standoff, only one caller criticized China, compared with five who denounced the United States. One complained that Chinese leaders "are not tough enough, not courageous enough" and should never allow themselves to be pushed around by the United States.

"China for 100 years has been humiliated by foreign powers," he boomed in Mandarin. "I hope China will be strong one day and get even. I hope one of our leaders will emerge as Hitler and avenge the past."

The phone lines have burned hot before. After the accidental 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, most of the callers excoriated the United States and labeled the Chinese-American talk show hosts as traitors. In the latest standoff, staffers at Radio Free Asia say they believe that Beijing, worried about the fallout from a messy international incident, is trying to tone down its rhetoric in the state-run media.

But average Chinese citizens are still calling to rant.

"The Chinese government has got a problem: They've stirred up this strong anti-foreignism, but it's obviously not in China's interest in this case," says Arthur Waldron, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization. "It's a certain kind of chilling xenophobia."

In this atmosphere, Radio Free Asia's hosts choose their words carefully. Zhang says he fears that if he were to argue with Chinese callers who express hard-line nationalist views, he could hurt his credibility: Listeners accustomed to censorship might assume he was reading a U.S. government script. But Zhang, a 37-year-old one-time student dissident who left China a decade ago, concedes he is tempted to shout back.

"I wish I was Rush Limbaugh," he sighs. "I'd love to be able to speak my mind like that."

He bites his tongue instead. When an angry caller insisted to Zhang this week, "You're Chinese, too - don't you feel we should be vengeful?" Zhang, adhering strictly to his five-minute call limit, replied simply, "Your time is up."

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